Nutrition misinformation is ubiquitous. Sometimes the misinformation is lack of deeper thinking. A recent Huffington Post entry by Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, caught my eye for just that reason.
Ms. Kirkpatrick addresses 5 dissonant myths probably tied together since it’s Thanksgiving week. She addresses myths about carbohydrates, eating late at night, weight gain during the holidays, the nutrient value of fresh vs. frozen food and the five second rule about eating food after it has been dropped on the floor. Each of the discussions left me wanting. Here’s my take on each of them.
1. THE CARBOHYDRATE MYTH
In 2002, researchers analyzed the diets of over 10,000 Americans by categorizing them by their carbohydrate intake. They found that those who had the highest intake of carbohydrates had the lowest overall intake of calories and were more likely to be at a normal weight.
My first thought is, “How nice it is to be insulin sensitive.” People who enjoy insulin sensitivity can eat a higher carbohydrate diet, they don’t get sugar and carbohydrate cravings, and they don’t gain water or fat weight readily. Of course they are leaner and eat less.
One third of Americans are born relatively insulin resistant. Lifestyle factors can make this worse. There are many studies that show many people thrive on a lower carbohydrate intake, some showing remarkable differences in weight management depending on genetic predisposition. (See work by Chris Gardner)
Continuing to insist that carbohydrates aren’t bad is missing the point. The question for each of us is how much and what kind of carbohydrates work best to give us the energy and sense of well being we seek.
2. THE MYTH ABOUT EATING LATE AT NIGHT
A calorie is still a calorie whether it is 6:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. The main importance is how many calories you consume throughout the day.
A calorie is a calorie. But not all calories are treated the same in our body. Nutrient partitioning is a phenomena that determines if your food will be used for energy or stored as fat. People who are insulin resistant secrete more insulin in response to their food intake. Excessive insulin drives energy into fat stores. This often causes a rebound hypoglycemia, increasing hunger and cravings for carbohydrate.
In addition, sleep and food intake influence hormonal responses that impact your appetite. As explained by Susan Dopart, MS, RD, a higher carbohydrate diet without adequate protein tends to increase ghrelin levels and “grows the appetite.”
Calories count, but hormones are potent factors determining what happens after you eat those calories. Weight management is not merely a math problem. If it was, we would have solved it by now.
3. THE WEIGHT GAIN DURING THE HOLIDAYS MYTH
They found that the average weight gain from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was less than 1 pound (0.8lb)
One of the biggest mistakes science makes is reporting findings that lead people to believe that the average experience is everyone’s experience. This data would be much more useful if the researchers or the author discussed the range of weight gain.
On the same diet people have very different experiences. Dr. Gardner’s research shows just that. My guess is that the insulin sensitive people experience far less weight gain, if any, as they enjoy the treats of the season.
Insulin resistant folks enjoy a few sweets, start to gain, experience even more carbohydrate cravings, and are soon slipping and sliding through the rest of the holidays. These are the folks who bring up the average. They can readily gain 5, 10 pounds and more between Halloween and the New Year.
It works in reverse as well. Weight loss is almost always easier for insulin sensitive folks.
My husband and friend once rode over 500 miles in a fund raising bike ride. Both riders ate the same food for the entire week. Both ate mountains of pasta, bowls of rice and handfuls of cookies to fuel themselves over the miles. The insulin sensitive guy lost 2.5% body fat over the 7 days. My husband lost 0.5%.
In private practice for over 25 years, I continue to observe people with a ride range of metabolic responses to food. Each person is their own puzzle and deserves to develop an approach to food that works for them. The person who gains 5-10 pounds over the holidays needs different support and guidance than the person who gains little or nothing.
4. THE FRESH VS. FROZEN FOOD MYTH
In the winter, however, eating fresh means not only paying more, but perhaps getting fewer nutrients. That’s because during the winter months, many fresh produce options have to travel hundreds and sometimes even thousands of miles to reach the grocery store.
I mostly don’t have a problem with this content, except I live in Southern California and the Huffington Post is a national, if not global publication. It is curious to me that the writer would limit her comments to her experience in the Northeast.
I appreciate the challenge of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Northeast. I remember a favorite aunt who lived in the Hudson River Valley. She would often chatter excitedly about the opening of farmer’s markets in early June. It would give me pause. In Southern California, my farmer’s markets are open all year long.
The disconnect for me is the assumption that produce traveling thousands of miles has fewer nutrients. I don’t think the issues is miles as much as time since harvesting. I’ve spoken to supermarket produce workers in Los Angeles. Too many people don’t know that produce in supermarkets is often sold 7-10 days post harvest–even with the San Jouquin Valley just a few hundred miles away.
The nutrition issue is freshness, not distance. It is important to not confuse the issue of nutrients with other significant discussions like sustainability. In the end, I agree that frozen produce may be the best nutritional bet during winter months for many people.
5. THE MYTH OF THE FIVE SECOND RULE
They found that when a piece of bologna was picked up off the tile floor that over 99 percent of the bacterial cells from the floor were transferred to the bologna.
People hear the word bacteria and get scared. We are a bacteria phobic people. For decades science and medical thinking has hinged on the premise that bacteria is bad. I’m not so sure.
We need healthy bacteria to keep us protected from opportunistic pathological strains. There is much discussion in the health care community that what we are lacking is enough healthy bacteria in our soils, in our food, in our guts. Lack of healthy bacteria has been linked to increasing incidence of gastro-intestinal diseases, asthma and allergies, as well as poor immune systems.
Today pro-biotic and pre-biotic supplements are sold everywhere. We pay extra for these bacteria to be added to our food. Why not let ourselves eat food that is a little less sterile? The real issue isn’t whether there is or is not more bacteria on our food. We need to ask better questions. Is it harmful? Is it helpful?
We need to be honest about what bacteria to be concerned about. Most of the pathogenic bacteria linked to our food supply is associated with animal and human feces, open wounds, and spoiled food. I don’t know if the bacteria found on the floor matches this risk.
My guess is that the researches know and probably reported this data in their findings. I would find the discussion more significant if Ms. Kirkpatrick could have addressed what kind of bacteria they found and it’s relative risk profile.